State House News Service

State House Roundup: The Coakley Conundrum

BOSTON — Thanks for playing “So You Want To Be Governor: Insiders Edition.”

Saturday’s contestants are Martha Coakley, the prosecutor; Steve Grossman, the treasurer; Don Berwick, the doctor and health bureaucrat; Juliette Kayyem, the national security expert; and Joe Avellone, the executive.

Attorney General Coakley heads into the state Democratic Party Convention in Worcester riding high in the polls and in popularity, but widely expected to lose the delegate vote to Treasurer Grossman (and possibly Berwick). While Grossman is hoping to cash in on his long history with Democratic politics and get a bounce out of the convention, Coakley needs a strong showing to help cure the post-traumatic stress disorder still afflicting many Democrats since her collapse against Scott Brown in 2010.

Many voters want to be with her. Not only did she have a 35-point lead over Grossman in the latest Boston Globe poll, but 71 percent of likely voters view her favorably. Now she needs to give them a reason not to jump ship, or, as the current occupant of the office might say, a “reason to believe.”

During a Boston Herald/Suffolk University debate this week, Coakley seemed largely content to sit back, answer the questions put to her, and watch the other four fight for talking time. It was a strategy that worked for her in 2009 when she ran for U.S. Senate in a four-way Democratic primary, but it let her down in the general.

Grossman jabbed her about her past opposition to drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants, while Kayyem accused her of taking credit for the positive things to come out of the attorney general’s office (home foreclosure settlements) but hiding behind her office when she wanted to evade responsibility. Kayyem was mainly talking about Coakley’s decision to disallow a ballot question that would repeal the state’s casino law. The Supreme Judicial Court is considering whether to overturn her ruling.

While Grossman and Coakley are eyeing margins, Berwick, Kayyem and Avellone are fighting for their 15 percent to qualify for the ballot. Avellone insists the math won’t allow all five staying in contention beyond the convention, but he also insists it won’t be him going despite lagging all four in the polls.

“I’ve been locked in here, so I really don’t know what the delegate count is for whom,” said Senate President Therese Murray, a Coakley backer. “I think as long as Martha gets her 15 percent and we walk out of there then we’ll be good.”

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers were eyeing a different minimum needed to get by – the minimum wage. House and Senate negotiators arrived at a compromise to raise the minimum wage from $8 an hour to $11 by 2017, but dropped a Senate-backed provision that would have indexed future increases to inflation. The bill, if approved by the House and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, would help lift workers out of poverty and stimulate the economy, backers said.

The Senate voted 35-4 for the wage hike, which would give Massachusetts the highest statewide minimum wage in the country, despite cries from some business leaders that the wage increases will hurt small businesses and job growth.

Murray said she received “feedback” that the deal with House leaders would be enough to avert a ballot question going before voters in November, even as some Democrats – Sen. Marc Pacheco included – don’t think it would be such a bad idea to have the minimum wage on the ballot in November.

The party’s candidates are not exactly lighting the enthusiasm lamp for voters, and energizing the base around the minimum wage wouldn’t the worst outcome for Democratic candidates, even though Republican Charlie Baker is also embracing a wage hike.

The Senate also approved a $1 billion expansion of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and a $1.3 billion capital facility borrowing bill, while the House tested the stamina of its members with a late-night debate over the speaker’s economic development bill, approved with a few additions such as an August sales tax holiday.

In what was perhaps the most important milestone to date since lawmakers first approved expanded gambling in Massachusetts in 2011, the Gaming Commission awarded the first casino license in state history on Friday to MGM Springfield. And yet what should have been a huge moment turned out to be more ho-hum than cha-ching.

Part of the reason for that is MGM Springfield didn’t just have the most impressive architecture and well-dressed croupiers in the contest for a western Massachusetts license. As it turned out, they were also the only ones competing.

The second reason is that having a license to build a casino may not mean much in a few months if the Supreme Judicial Court decides to allow the ballot question repealing the gambling law to proceed to voters in November. Support for casinos among voters is plummeting, and the court’s ruling is expected in early July.

With his nominee SJC Justice Ralph Gants unanimously confirmed this week to become the next chief justice of the court, Patrick on Friday turned to veteran Appeals Court Justice Geraldine Hines to fill Gants’ seat.

In Hines, Patrick was able to reaffirm his commitment to securing diversity on the bench, which he has acknowledged is a factor, though not the only factor, in his nominating process.

Hines, a black woman, will replace Gants on the bench when he ascends to the role of chief justice to fill the retirement of Roderick Ireland in July. The governor made Ireland the first black chief justice of the state’s highest court, and now could have a record of appointing not only the first black chief, and first black woman, but the first openly gay justice and the first Asian-American justice to the high court.

Coincidentally, as the Governor’s Council was preparing to confirm Gants on Wednesday, the SJC released an opinion authored by the incoming chief justice striking down a law that gave the Parole Board the authority to punish sex offenders sentenced to community parole supervision for life.

Gants made good on his “problem solver” promise and provided in his opinion a prescription for remedying the 1999 that he found to be unconstitutional by giving the executive branch the power to incarcerate, which should be reserved exclusively for the Judiciary.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Minority Leader Brad Jones both expressed their interest in finding a legislative solution to continue lifetime monitoring of sex offenders without offending the founding fathers.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Bay State politicians love to use superlatives when describing Massachusetts. This week the Legislature took a step toward adding highest minimum wage to the list.

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